“Come look at these.”
Jani Kilian maneuvered through the morning workday crowd and joined Lucien Pascal at the shop window. The display proved typical for an establishment bordering Cabinet Row, quiet and opulent at the same time. The store specialized in fine tableware—the cutlery and metal plate that filled the velvet-draped display niches seemed to glow in the Chicago morning sun.
“This is a very good thank-you gift for your better clients.” Lucien pointed to a small silver bowl that had been shaped into a half-shell, then satin-polished until it appeared lit from within. “Not too expensive, but not cheap either. It implies that the document business is good, but you’re too astute to throw money about without good reason. It just so happens that you consider the recipient to be a good reason.” He bent closer to the window to get a better look, his white-blond hair capturing the light like the silver. “Hand out a few of those, then sit back and watch the commissions pour in.”
Jani examined the bowl. Lucien had acquired his eye under the tutelage of Exterior Minister Anais Ulanova and his taste, as always, proved sound but expensive. “I already have more commissions than I can handle.” She turned away from the window and continued down the walkway. “I should be home working on a few of them now instead of walking you to the train.” She slipped her hand inside her trouser pocket, working her fingers through the assorted vend tokens and keycards until they closed around a slip of paper. The crisp, Cabinet-grade parchment crackled—she jerked out her hand, then folded her arms and turned back to Lucien.
He stood in front of the window, watching her. He looked like a fairy tale soldier in his dress blue-greys, the steel-blue tunic cut on the diagonal with a black leather crossover belt, the grey trousers slashed along the sides with mainline red stripes. He’d set his brimmed lid with geometric precision. Even his red lieutenant’s bars and expert marksman badges glittered like costume decoration.
Only the fully packed holster on his waistbelt belied the romantic image. That, and the light in his brown eyes, as cold as the metal on the other side of the glass. “Why are you so edgy?”
Jani forced a smile. “What makes you think I’m edgy?”
“Because you’re answering my question with a question, for one thing.”
“I do that all the time. You’re not the only one who complains about it.”
“But I’m the only one who knows what it means in this particular instance.” Lucien strolled to her side. “At oh-six, you get a call from the lobby. It’s your building manager, with an early morning documents delivery from Cabinet Archives. Nothing unusual in that—you’ve gotten those before. You tumble out of bed, throw on some clothes, and go downstairs to retrieve them.” He leaned close to her, bringing with him scents of soap and freshly washed hair. “Except you don’t return right away, and when you finally do show up, you’re snappish and distracted. You refuse to eat breakfast, and you hustle me out the door before I’ve even swallowed a cup of coffee.” He drew even nearer, until he brushed against her arm. “John would be upset if he knew you didn’t eat. You know that you can’t afford to mistreat yourself, considering your condition.”
Jani backed off a step so that she could look Lucien in the face. And what a face, the full mouth and strong bones still softened enough by youth to imply innocence. An angel, perched on the brink of damnation. Stay focused. She knew he could distract her, then trap her with a question or an offhand comment. “I’m fine. It just hit me how much work I have to do. I’ve got that meeting at the idomeni embassy today, and if form holds true, it will run longer than expected. I’ve got three Treasury summaries due next week, and I haven’t even looked at the data.”
“So as you said, why waste the time playing escort now?” Lucien stood easily, arms at his sides, head cocked in artless curiosity. “Where are you going after you leave me at Union?”
“The only place I’m going after I leave you at Union is home.” Jani turned her back on him and started to walk. Her weak right knee sagged with every step, the persistent reminder of an eventful summer. “I’ve found that the occasional break clears my head. Maybe I’ll take another one later today. Come back here and buy something for my best clients.” She took a deep, steadying breath. The crisp fall air held a city mélange of restaurant aromas, overheated skimmer batteries, and a whiff of pungent cologne from a passing pedestrian. “What time’s your train?”
“Oh-seven and a half. Same as when you asked five minutes ago.” Lucien moved up beside her, matching her stride for stride. “What’s wrong?”
“How can I help you if you never tell me anything?”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Who are you meeting?”
“I’m not meeting anybody.”
As they continued up the walkway, Jani noted that people stepped aside for them. They glanced first at Lucien, then at her, their eyes questioning. Who are you, lady? A Family member on an early morning shopping spree with her officer boyfriend? A colonial diplomat out for a stroll with her bodyguard? She knew she cut an imposing figure in her black trousers and crimson shirt-jacket. She matched Lucien in ranginess and almost matched him in height, her short black hair and brown skin serving as dark contrast to his brilliant blondness and paling summer tan. That’s who I am—the soldier’s shadow. Not the real thing—please don’t make that mistake. It was an error she’d made herself once, thinking herself a soldier. As was usual with those sorts of lapses, others had paid a steeper price for it than she.
They turned the corner, and Union Station loomed into view. Commuters streamed out, on the way to posts in the Cabinet Ministries, NUVA-SCAN, or Neoclona, and in, travelling to Fort Sheridan or other more distant points in the Michigan province. They entered the station, a train cathedral of stained glass and vaulted ceilings; the pound of footsteps and the keen of voices ricocheted off the walls and seemed to increase in volume with each successive bounce. Jani’s pulse quickened as she elbowed through the crowd. She had hurried through many train stations over the years.
They reached the embarkation platform and scanned the Outbound display, then hurried along the line of trains and down the track just as the first call for the Sheridan Express sounded. Lucien stopped before an open car, then turned. “I’ll see you at the embassy?”
Jani hesitated, then nodded. “You’re going to be there?”
“I’d never miss a chance to watch you and Nema cause trouble.” He pulled her close and kissed her, his lips warm and bruising. “Enjoy your break,” he whispered as he pulled away. He boarded the train, remaining in the entry as the door slid closed and the sleek bullet pulled away. They didn’t wave good-bye, just as they never held hands, or hugged. It wasn’t their style. They just stared at one another until the angle grew too sharp and Lucien disappeared from view.
Jani stood on the platform until the train vanished around the bend, then reached into her pocket once more. This time, she removed the piece of paper, her actions of earlier that morning replaying in her mind.
I met Hodge at the front desk. No one else was in the lobby. The only person outside was the doorman. I opened the documents case in Hodge’s presence, like I always do. If the seals appeared tampered-with, or if anything looked strange, better to uncover it before a reliable witness. I found nothing amiss. Seals appeared intact. The papers had been filed in an orderly manner.
Then Jani had caught sight of the slip of pale green parchment sticking out of the corner of one of the slipcases like a marker tag. She had gone ahead and closed the case, waiting until she boarded the lift before opening it again and removing the scrap with a hesitant hand.
You possess hidden talents, Niall—it takes skill to crack a Cabinet-grade seal. She unfolded the note and studied it as she had earlier. A short sentence, written in the neat script she’d grown accustomed to over the past months.
Meet me at oh-eight. You’ll know where.
“I will?” Jani turned over the scrap and examined the back for any clues she had missed during previous examinations. “Why the mystery, Colonel? And why the rush? We’re meeting for lunch tomorrow. Can’t this wait?” She folded down one of the corners, then unfolded it—the weighty paper still rustled like new. “Pale green. That’s the color Commerce is using for their official documents this year—” She stilled. “The Commerce Ministry.”
Now she knew where she had to go. All that remained was to find out why.